Last Saturday night Boyfriend and I met a couple of friends for dinner at Burma Superstar. We were all having a really good evening – the food was fantastic, and Boyfriend was appropriately excited because in two years in the Bay Area, this was his first time at the restaurant. The conversation was vigorous – we all like to spar – but also polite, and low on decibels out of respect for other diners. I was being particularly civilized – I didn’t interrupt or speak over anyone (What? I get carried away sometimes.), and I didn’t swear even once. Ok, maybe once. Or twice. But definitely not as much as I would have if I was at home. Heck, I was so well-behaved, I may even have spent the evening with my legs crossed elegantly and my back upright.
Until, of course, we started talking about sports. About cricket, to be precise.
One of the friends we were with is Quebecois, and though we find several common points of interests, cricket isn’t one of them. Canada has a cricket team, mind you – they don’t win anything, but they exist. (They also have a record or two.) But the influence of cricket doesn’t extend to French Canada, so said friend had no idea about or interest in the game. Sadly, the fact of this unfortunate historio-cultural accident, combined with his enduring love for comparing numbers, and his natural affinity for presenting counter-arguments, led him to dispute my assertion that the legendary Australian batsman Don Bradman was the greatest sportsman – across all sports – to have ever lived. (Yes, I was comparing talent and achievement across sports. Deal with it.)
“No, he was not,” my friend stated stubbornly.
Oh, no, you didn’t.
I clicked my talons on the table top. You don’t dispute Don Bradman’s greatest-ever-ness. You accept it and you move on. Obviously, I had to find a comeback to this instance of egregious irreverence. So I summoned my best Cersei Lannister voice and asked, “Oh, really? Then who do you think is the best, Wayne Gretzky?!”
Obviously, this did not go well. Our carefully assembled pretense of politeness-when-in-public and our pointed containment of the decibel level evaporated into thin air as we got into a vigorous discussion about Don Bradman. For several minutes we argued – neither of us willing to cede an inch – and for several minutes Boyfriend watched us in silence as he stuffed his face with Tofu Kebat and Shan Noodles. Then, when he was done eating and realized he needed to break the argument if we were to order dessert, he nonchalantly announced:
“Did you know that when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, the first question he asked was, ‘Is Don Bradman still alive?'”
This has got to be an amazing story.
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison between 1962 and 1990, and even though Bradman had retired from cricket by 1949, his rare and unmatched talent clearly made him known across the cricketing world and beyond, despite the absence of the televisation of sport for a large part of Bradman’s career.
But beyond everything else, I think this is a beautiful story because of the ways in which even the game of cricket could not escape the clutches of apartheid’s dirty, toxic fingers. Cricket had been organized on color lines since the 1890s in South Africa, and players of color were systematically kept out of the team. In 1968 Basil D’Oliveira, a player of color, went to England to play for the English team when he wasn’t selected for the South African national squad. This rightly caused a massive furor in the cricketing world, and England banned the South African team from touring their country. The ICC – the International Cricket Council (then the International Cricket Conference) imposed a ban on South African cricket in 1970, stating it would only let the country back into the sport when players of color were allowed to participate in it.
Of course, this didn’t stop private investors who cared little about freedom and equality from taking troupes of international cricketers to South Africa to play: South African audiences loved their cricket, so obviously this was a lucrative opportunity no businessman bereft of ethics could let go. Fortunately, this didn’t take off in any manner that was big enough to counter the effects of the ICC ban – one of the steps taken by the ICC and national cricket councils was that players who participated in what were called “rebel tours,” were no longer allowed to participate in national and international cricket as governed by the ICC.
The ban on South African cricket was finally lifted in 1991, a year after Nelson Mandela was released from prison and involved himself in negotiations to end apartheid. Of course, cricket wasn’t the only sport in which South Africa had suffered international boycott for nearly three decades. And while I don’t know if Mandela directly had anything to do with the reversal of the specific boycott on cricket, I can only assume from the interest he took in other sporting matters (remember this?) that sport was a big part of the face South Africa presented to the world, and the inclusion of players of color into national sporting teams was a very significant victory for the movement to end apartheid. Mandela is also famously a sports fan, and until recently, before his health started seriously deteriorating, he made regular appearances at cricket, football, and rugby matches.
So when Nelson Mandela emerges from a 27-year prison sentence and immediately asks about Don Bradman, you had better believe Bradman had to be the greatest ever. Or you could read about the book by Charles Davis, the sports statistician who compared numbers across sports and came to the conclusion that Don Bradman was the greatest ever. Or you could watch this show, which basically tells you that Don Bradman was the greatest ever:
Or you could just agree with me right now, because that will make life easier for everyone involved. We can spend a moment in reverence, and then move on to the argument over which sportsperson lays claim on the title of second-best. (It’s Pelé. Don’t argue with me.)